Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
The Old Testament Reading comes from the book of Leviticus this week.
The Old Testament Reading comes from the book of Leviticus this week. Upon noting this selection, preachers may be tempted to skip once again to the Gospel or Epistle Reading without much pause. What busy pastor has time to deal with the intricacies of law codes and purity laws? How would these “restrictions” and rules ever speak to complex twenty-first century lives?
Leviticus 19 and Matthew 5
So, why has the lectionary wandered into this often-ignored book of the Old Testament? The reason is simple: Jesus, in the Gospel Reading (Matthew 5:38-48) for this week, actually quotes from Leviticus. Jesus, the busy Jewish teacher, turns his attention to his explication of torah, or “law” as it is rigidly translated, and begins quoting from various passages in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
Or perhaps I should say: Jesus misquotes Leviticus in Matthew 5.
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
The command to love your neighbor is indeed found in Leviticus 19. Jesus is clearly drawing this portion of the saying from the Jewish Torah. The Hebrew Scriptures have much to say about the treatment of neighbor. We turn in fact to this very topic of neighborly love below.
However, no command to hate your enemy exists in Leviticus. Certainly, the ancient Israelites, like we today, were not always kind and loving to enemy nations and personal enemies. We tend to keep our distance from enemies for good reasons. In addition, the contrasting pair — loving neighbor and hating enemy — creates a clever statement for Jesus to explore.
Perhaps it was even a common expression or understanding in those days to associate positive emotions with neighbors and strongly negative emotions with enemies. Could we not say the same for today?
But we should be clear that the second part of Jesus’ saying is not a verbatim quote from Hebrew Scripture. The teachings given to Moses do not inscribe a charge to hate!
So, maybe Jesus is not misquoting Leviticus, just augmenting the original phrase in order to establish his later point.
Ultimately, Jesus’ interpretation of this saying reverses its second part with the concern for the neighbor falling away (or simply standing intact). Enemies become the focus. Enemies who are not dealt with explicitly in Leviticus 19.
The admonition to love one’s neighbor in Leviticus 19 is situated within a larger literary context of seemingly random laws. The whole chapter does not easily cohere under a single theme. We are not discussing, as elsewhere in this biblical book, certain festivals or a range of offerings.
Broadly speaking, the regulations provided in Lev. 19 relate to ethical matters such as the proper treatment of others, how we respect and honor various peoples.
Indeed, different categories of people are mentioned frequently in the chapter. Here’s a list using The Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh translation:
“the poor” verses 10, 15
“the stranger” verse 10
“fellow” verses 13, 16, 18
“laborer” verse 13
“deaf” verse 14
“blind” verse 14
“the rich” verse 15
“your kinsman” “kinsfolk” verses 15, 17
“your countrymen” verses 16, 18
The laws deal with one’s relationship to these diverse groups, cutting across economic, familial, and ability lines. So, do not insult the deaf; do not show deference to the rich, or favor to the poor. Judge your kinsman fairly. The laws are about just relationships.
You will notice that the list above does not include the word “neighbor.”
The word typically translated as “neighbor” does not carry an explicitly geographic association. It is not necessarily the one whom you live beside or across from or on the same street. It is not necessary the people on your side of town or even those within your city.
The “neighbor” is the one you come in contact with as you go about your life. The JPS Tanakh therefore translates this Hebrew word as “fellow.” I might recommend the clumsier “fellow citizen,” although I fully recognize the appeal of “neighbor” with its Judeo-Christian resonances.
A fellow citizen or neighbor is a companion, a friend, one to share life with.
We are not encouraged to think geographically. We are to think socially and relationally. In our contemporary world, we often come in contact with people in our workplaces and schools and churches who do not live on our street or in our immediate neighborhood. Most months, I might see my co-workers more often than my next door neighbor.
Thinking geographically might tempt me to worry about just relationships and the love of neighbor only when I rake leaves side by side with the couple next door as opposed to when I go about my daily life at home, at work, in the market.
Leviticus 19 gives several specific ways in which to demonstrate love of neighbor. One example strikes me particularly as helpful. The law instructs us to leave gleanings as we harvest for the poor. We are not to harvest completely and leave nothing to waste; instead, we are to stop our harvesting before we reach the farthest boundaries of our fields so as to welcome the poor and stranger, who live at the margins, to take their share.
When deciding exactly how much to leave behind, the Jewish Mishnah “recommends taking into consideration several factors, such as the abundance of the yield, the overall resources of the owner of the field, and the current needs of the poor.”1
Loving neighbor involves providing from our hard labor for those who do not have enough.
1 Baruch Levine, Leviticus (JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 127.